Flooring exerts more visual influence on the atmosphere of a room than any other single factor, and flooring options are expanding fast. But if you’re looking for a simple, long-lasting flooring choice that’s also elegant, durable and environmentally responsible, there are three options in particular that are worth looking at:
These three are all hard-surface floors that make sense in both a full-time home and a seasonal country place. And of these three, cork is probably the least well known.
Cork is tree bark, and Portugal is the centre of cork production world-wide. Harvested from living trees every 9 or 10 years, cork is a renewable resource that often sports Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. This ensures that the cork you buy comes from sustainably harvested sources. Cork was first made into flooring in the late 1800s, and three features are the reason it’s still growing in popularity today:
Highly varied visual details make cork look diverse and interesting. Every piece is different, while still matching its neighbour. The slight resilience of cork under foot makes it especially comfortable to walk on, too. Cork also warms cold floors and dampens the transmission of footsteps and other impact noises to floors below. You’ll find cork available as prefinished, glueless tiles and planks, or unfinished versions for installation with glue and site finishing. The higher the density of the cork, the more durable the floor. The best corks weigh in at 500kg/m3 or 30lbs.ft3. Costs range from $6 to $10/sq.ft. for cork floors.
Bamboo flooring is a new kid on the block in the flooring world, and types vary a lot. Natural bamboo flooring is light in colour and as hard as red oak, while strand bamboo is the toughest of all. It’s as durable as tropical hardwoods and virtually indestructible. That said, you do need to be careful. Bamboo flooring is also sometimes made darker with a heat treatment process called carbonizing. The look is great, but carbonizing makes bamboo as soft as some species of pine, so beware. I know a few disappointed homeowners who bought dark bamboo because it was supposed to be durable, without being aware of the drawbacks of carbonized versions.
Most bamboo is factory finished, available as click-together panels or nail-down strips. Plantations regenerate every 5 to 7 years, so raw materials are sustainable and often certified as such. Ask about the safety of adhesive and finishes used to create flooring before you buy. Cost: $2.50 to $5.00/sq.ft.
Engineered hardwood is made of thin slices of high-grade hardwood factory-bonded to a stable, economical plywood substrate underneath. This reduces cost and increases stability compared with solid hardwoods. If you’ve got your heart set on installing a real wood floor over radiant infloor heating, then engineered wood is your most reliable option. Click, nailed, prefinished and unfinished options are available. Cost: $5 to $9/sq.ft.
One more thing: Click versions of bamboo, cork and engineered hardwood are sold in small bundles, and this makes your flooring choice virtually risk-free. Do your research, find what you like, then buy a single box of that flooring. Temporarily assemble it in a high-traffic area in your home, then see how you like it after a month or so. Even perfectly good flooring might show dust in a way that displeases you. Perhaps it will scuff and get marked faster than you expected. Now’s the time to find out. With any luck, all will go well, you’ll love your choice and be able to proceed confidently with a full-scale installation. Small size sampling is cheap insurance against large-sized disappointment.